In California, sagging economy turns voters toward Democrats

The political logjam over the economy appears to be breaking up, with the prospect of a potential flood in the Democrats' favor.

''No doubt in my mind I'll vote Democratic,'' says Robert Hargreave, an Orange County, Calif., machinist and a Democrat. ''I voted for Reagan last time. There wasn't much choice between Reagan and Carter, given what Reagan said he was going to do. Well, he's done it - chopped off everything else for defense. The Republicans are a rich man's club again. I thought Reagan might be different, since he made his own way up.''

Such comments are indications that the public's pent-up, conflicting feelings about Ronald Reagan's economic program - a mixture of hope and patience on the one hand, and growing anxiety about recession and jobs on the other - may be finding release and new direction.

''The economy in California hasn't been hurt as bad as in other states,'' says Mr. Hargreave. ''I've been dropped from 10 hours a day to 7 hours. It's still work, points out Hargreave, whose brother, Richard, a Republican, has been out of a job for nine months. ''But it's taken $200 a week from my pay check.''

In this state, the nation's most populous, Democrats have made dramatic gains in recent weeks, a trend that could be sharply enhanced by last Friday's announcement of unemployment breaking into double digits.

In the Senate race, Democrat Edmund G. Brown Jr., the current governor, has come from 11 points behind San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson in August, to a point ahead in Mervin Field's latest California poll. In the governor's race, Tom Bradley, the mayor of Los Angeles, has opened a 14-point lead over the Republican candidate, Attorney General George Deukmejian.

Richard Wirthlin, President Reagan's pollster, says that in California, along with the Northeast and Midwest - areas with many of the key US House races - serious voter concern about unemployment could translate into trouble for the GOP. ''I think it works to the Democrats' advantage,'' says Democratic pollster Peter Hart.

It is ironic that the trend seems particularly evident in President Reagan's home state, origin of ''the Reagan revolution'' heralded in the fall of 1980.

California remains one of the best US political bellwethers. Not only is it the largest state, but its population conforms remarkably to the political makeup of the country as a whole. Democrats have a 5 to 3 advantage in registration in the United States and in California, balanced, frequently, by the GOP's better assessment of voter attitudes.

The bloom on California's once luxurious economy has gone.

From Hollywood car dealers to jobless lines in Orange County, the recession has hurt. ''Business is down 100 percent,'' says Paul Osborn, manager of Garthwaite Rolls-Royce Ltd. in Hollywood. ''In the mid '70s, I could sell any Rolls-Royce on the lot in one day. Now they sit here and nobody wants them. We're all just scraping through.''

Close races in California are usually decided by the million or so Democrats in the moderate part of the spectrum who will vote for either party. The movement of these Democrats appears crucial again in 1982.

''The tide is changing,'' pollster Field told the Monitor. ''Democrats are returning to the fold.

''Wilson and Deukmejian are still talking the Reagan euphoria of November and December of 1980. That's still the Republican vision.

''The public's been sorting out their personal feelings about Reagan and their concern about the economy. The public doesn't see the gains against inflation the economists talk about. To voters that's just statistics. They see they still don't have any money left.

''If there's a big play from 10 percent unemployment, the tide could run faster for the Democrats. If the Democrats had an effective program, an articulate spokesman, it would be a flood to the Democrats. As it is, even though the Democrats don't have a program, the public seems to be reacting as it has in recent decades when the economy is in trouble . . . they turn to the Democrats.''

A shift in theme of this election is also noted by I. A. Lewis, director of the Los Angeles Times poll.

''Here in California everybody was sure crime would be the issue,'' Mr. Lewis says. ''The Republicans even handpicked their candidate [Attorney General Deukmejian] on the basis of the wrong issue.

''Traditionally in America the economy has always been the most important issue. Social issues are really luxury issues. This election may come down to which party is most sympathetic to the concerns of the average citizen, a Democratic theme.''

Bill Roberts, the veteran Republican strategist handling the Deukmejian campaign, says crime has been stressed by Deukmejian because ''it's been his main strength in his public life, and crime is a big issue.''

Still, Mr. Roberts acknowledges the economy governs in the governor's race. ''The economy transcends the state's borders,'' he points out. ''But the public is looking for some action on the economy from a governor.''

Ten percent unemployment nationwide may not say all that much to California voters, Roberts contends. ''Unemployment has been 10 percent for some time in California,'' he says.

''It doesn't seem to have an impact on the votingm public. Those without jobs aren't as active in the political process as those with jobs.''

Deukmejian's strategy is to run against Jerry Brown as much as against Tom Bradley. ''Bradley, philosophically, is a clone of Jerry Brown,'' Roberts says. ''We're trying to get Bradley to say how he's going to be different from Brown. Bradley's a lot more liberal than he likes to make out.''

Deukmejian's own polls show him ''gaining nicely'' on Bradley, Roberts says. ''If we're within five points of Bradley the weekend of the election, we'll win, '' Roberts contends.

Other observers question the wisdom of running against Brown, a resourceful campaigner.

In his race, on issues cited as most important by voters, Brown leads Wilson on two - unemployment and social security. Wilson leads on one, taxes/government spending. The two Senate candidates run even on the cost of living and crime. Democrat Brown also was rated ahead on the environment, dangers of nuclear war, and the rights of women. Wilson was ahead with voters on defense. ''I can't see why Deukmejian and Wilson aren't moving to the left,'' Field says. ''They don't seem to have refocused from the primary to the general election. Democrats are returning to the fold, as a counter to the conservative talk of the past year and a half.'' Democratic support for Brown has climbed from 57 percent in August to 70 percent in October.

Although Bradley's 14-point margin over Deukmejian in the governor's race is wider than Brown's over Wilson in the Senate race, Brown may be the surer Democratic bet, say experts here.

For Bradley, a black, no one is sure how the race issue will play on Nov. 2. Both the Bradley and Deukmejian camps say race will not be a factor. Bradley's supporters say the public has grown familiar with Bradley during his years in the highly visible role as Los Angeles mayor. Some observers see in Deukmejian's emphasis on crime an allusion to race. Roberts says flatly, ''Race is no part of this campaign.'' But he goes on to complain, ''

Bradley has wanted to set up our campaign later as vicious. We have no negative spots on him. He tried to paint George into Watergate with his spots - pretty shabby on his part. The press puts a double standard on Bradley because he is black.''Bradley's campaign style has been to offer few concrete proposals for what he would do in office, while warning that Deukmejian would try to distort Bradley's record - a suggestion observers here interpret as an alert to watch for racial innuendo.

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